Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson
Published 2015 by Candlewick
456 pages, nonfiction--history/biography.
I checked this book out from the library back in early May, and it has sat around my house ever since, eyeing me reproachfully as I went through renewal after renewal. It looked big, and possibly Serious. But I'm in the last few days of my final renewal cycle, so I picked it up this evening and started reading.
And didn't stop until I'd finished three hours later. Sorry kids, no dinner tonight! Scrounge around and see what you can find!
I know a bit about Russian and Soviet history. I read 900 Days back in high school on my dad's recommendation, and as a European history major in college I took all of the Russia-related courses available. It was a small college, so that was only two history courses and a lit class, but still. I know about the tsars, and Lenin, and the starvation of the Ukraine under Stalin, and the horrors of The Great Patriotic War (including the cannibalism, which also happened under Stalin's collectivization push). I've read a translation of Kruschev's "Secret Speech" I'm even dimly aware of Shostakovich, courtesy of a very thorough piano teacher and time spent in orchestras.
But this book pulled it all together cleanly and effortlessly. This is the kind of nonfiction that made me want to major in history in the first place. Unlike in The Family Romanov, the parts I already was familiar with came alive with new vibrancy and importance. I've walked the streets of both Leningrad (in 1990) and St. Petersburg (in 1993 and 1998). I've met people decades after their return from Siberia, been friends with people who grew up in the final decades of the Soviet Union with all this painful history, secrets and lies hanging over their heads. And this book puts me right there in ways I've never been. By framing the national history around the composer's biography, the author maintains a narrative drive that some nonfiction loses. (Looking at you, all those excellent Bill Bryson books I've read half of, then forgot to finish because NO PLOT.)
Halfway through the book, I realized I should be listening to the music as I read. For awhile I just listened to Shostakovich music in general, but then I put on his Seventh Symphony. And would you believe it--the final triumphant chords came crashing down as I read the last page of the book.
I agree with other reviewers that the author's sentence structure is choppy and oddly juvenile in a book that is so complex. But the impact of the book more than makes up for that stylistic decision, as far as I'm concerned. (And I know it was a deliberate decision, having read Anderson's Octavian Nothing and Feed, neither of which sound anything like this.)
Fiction is my candy, and I gobble it down with ease. Nonfiction always daunts me, yet my favorite books from this summer have all been nonfiction. Maybe I need to recommit to tackling more of it this year.
Do you read nonfiction? What types do you prefer? Is there a topic that you're drawn to, or do you like to explore new ideas and information?